HomeScienceHorseback riding, a 5,000-year-old practice

    Horseback riding, a 5,000-year-old practice

    Mold of a baked clay plate representing a horseman, period of ancient Babylon.

    In his encyclopedic Natural History, Buffon (1707-1788) had this famous phrase to describe the horse: “The noblest conquest that man has ever made.” Further on, he added that “the domestication of these animals is even so universal, so ancient, that we rarely see them in their natural state.” Ancient, the domestication of the horse? Yes, but by how many millennia? A paleogenetics paper published in 2021 showed that the origin of our modern, docile, strong-backed horses dated back to 2200 BC.

    Does that mean that their predecessors were not domesticated? “There is a debate among researchers about when the horse was domesticated. Some date it to the fifth millennium BC, others to the fourth millennium, others to the third,” said Volker Heyd. This professor of archeology at the University of Helsinki has brought a new element to this scholarly dispute with an international study that he directed and that, published Friday, March 3 in Science Advancesconfirms that horseback riding was mastered by the Yamnaya culture 5,000 years ago.

    The Yamnaya were a people of nomadic herders originating from the steppes running from the north of the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. They later spread far beyond this territory, reaching as far east as the borders of China and as far west as the Balkans, before their descendants conquered all the rest of Europe in the third millennium before our era, providing in large part the genetic substrate of modern Europeans.

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    Was this rapid and unstoppable wave of migration aided by the use of horses? Did the Yamnaya master horseback riding? Although equine bones have been found in archaeological sites linked to this culture, sometimes in very large quantities, it is impossible to determine what these mammals were used for. Simple cattle? Draft animals? Prestige goods? Or real steeds? The bones cannot reveal what use was made of them, nor have any pieces of harness been found, probably because, if they existed, they were made of perishable materials.

    This has not discouraged the researchers, who recognize that horseback riding is an interaction between the mount and its rider. Although there was no trace of the practice on the horses’ bones, it is possible that it would have left some on the human skeletons. “The Yamnaya rode without saddles or stirrups, just bareback. They had to keep constant pressure on their legs, which left traces on their femurs and pelvis. I would not talk about pathologies, but an adaptation to an athletic activity,” said Heyd.

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